At 96 years old Robert Weine’s Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) is often cited as being the first identifiable horror movie. While I can’t be totally sure of this, it’s certainly a believable thought, as it combines pretty much every element one would expect from horror, from the silent era and early sound films of Universal, via the 1950s monster movie, Hammer, gialli, and all that has come since.
The plot concerns the titular doctor (Werner Kraus) and his charge, a ‘somnambulist’ by the name of Cesare (Conrad Veidt) and their visit to a small village fair. Following the startling revelation of Cesare, in a shot that is still hauntingly effective as he wakes from his slumber, a series of murders occur and the culprit is caught in the act and then revealed by a young man, Francis (Friedrich Feher) who was witness to the initial awakening.
This leads on to a chase and a revelation, followed by a sting in the tale that, even 96 years in I had not heard the details of, so I won’t spoil it here.
Of course, Weine’s film is famous as the touchstone of the German Expressionist movement in cinema, with elaborately un-naturalistic, angular sets creating a sense of something other and building a feeling of claustrophobia that grows as the films goes on and, as they do in most films of this nature, the plot moves towards its inevitable conclusion.
Amongst the sets, the performance of Conrad Veidt stands out. It is mannered in the way all silent performances must be, but there is a sense that it is a much more controlled mannerism than many others exhibit, even Kraus, who gives a good performance as the doctor, comes across as something of an overblown hack in comparison – though compared to many other films of a similar era he too has his controlled moments.
But, what sets this apart as something special is something that is inescapable in the film’s production history and artistic concept. It’s a point that has been stated countless times before, but, in seeing it in the flesh for the first time it still resonates.
Der Cabinet Das Dr. Caligari was made in 1919, almost immediately following the First World War and the fingerprints of this real life horror are all over it. First we have the expressionist design that demonstrates a broken world, where the normal man, in this case Friedrich Feher’s Francis, strives for control but ultimately has none as power is ceded to an authority run amok.
More famously and obviously is the position of Cesare. Controlled by the same rogue authority he has no choice but to commit murder, he literally sleepwalks into it, and the fate of guilt is left nicely ambiguous.
I won’t labour the point further but, like most worthwhile horror, Der Cabinet Das Dr. Caligari exists as a product and commentary on its time and, again like many that were to come, leaves things on an ambiguous note that is surprisingly downbeat and sets in motion wheels cinema is still feeling turn today.
A note on the version of the film.
I was watching the newly released Eureka: Masters of Cinema edition of the film which is a restoration and transfer in HD (4K should your system allow it) and, for a film of 96 years, it is truly amazing. Still in place are a number of jumps and scratches that are unreconstably of the time but the image is sharper and clearer than any restoration I have yet seen of almost any film, not to mention one of this age.